You know how some pitchers’ duels can be boring, but you can’t admit it because baseball connoisseurs are supposed to prize pitching above all else? So you solemnly nod and you say sage things about “changing his eye level,” and meanwhile all you want is for someone to stop rolling over and grounding to second so you can see some dingers?
Wednesday’s NL wild-card game wasn’t one of those duels that forces you to pretend. This battle, between the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner and the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard, made the sight of bat on ball seem sacrilegious. And if that sentiment seems a bit florid for 2016, a little too close to Runyon and Rice, so did the spectacle of two of baseball’s best starters slinging seven-plus scoreless apiece on a night when no other game could butt in to take our attention away.
Before it began, the prospect of Bumgarner-Syndergaard in a winner-take-all sounded so cartoonishly tantalizing that the impulse was to downplay its potential: Yeah, it’ll probably be 8–7 by the second. Prior to Wednesday, 100 single-elimination postseason games had been played. All of the teams in those games were good enough to get to the playoffs, and all of them used the best arms they could to avoid that last loss. Yet Syndergaard-Bumgarner beat out the combined single-season WARs of the starters in all but 13 of those matchups. It was only the sixth time that two five-plus-win pitchers had faced off in a do-or-die game, and the first since reigning Cy Young winner Barry Zito faced reigning runner-up Pedro Martínez in Game 5 of the 2003 ALDS.
As first pitch approached, analysts searched the two aces’ stats for some sign of weakness. Maybe San Francisco would exploit Syndergaard’s slow motion; no pitcher this season made runners more likely to take off. Or maybe the Giants’ low-strikeout lineup would hurt his results; high-contact hitters had given him trouble before. Once the game got going, the stat-mining seemed silly: Neither starter looked anything less than completely in control, starting with Syndergaard’s game-opening strikeout and Bumgarner’s first-inning Yoenis Céspedes brushback, which came roughly as close to the press box as it did to Céspedes’s head but still drew a roar from the crowd. Syndergaard was unstoppable, whipping more pitches at 98-plus in one start than two entire teams — one of which won a division! — threw all season. Bumgarner, who spent the first few innings pumping high fastballs that seemed slow next to Syndergaard’s, then switched to a steady stream of slow curves, looked low-energy by comparison. But what he lacked in electricity he made up in efficiency, keeping his pitch count so low that one could extrapolate early and project that the Giants’ iffy bullpen wouldn’t be a concern. Syndergaard, Bumgarner; Syndergaard, Bumgarner; back and forth.
With both starters so stingy, each attempt at a rally seemed abnormally loud, like a whisper in a library reading room: René Rivera’s leadoff single in the third; back-to-back Giants walks to lead off the fourth; T.J. Rivera’s leadoff double in the fifth; and the Giants’ first hit, a two-out Denard Span single in the sixth. Every time a dilemma developed, a solution arrived: a double play, a caught stealing, or a miraculous catch by somehow-still-center-fielding Curtis Granderson, who tracked down a Brandon Belt ball to deep center hit so hard and so far that Statcast would have bet on it being a homer and came close to guaranteeing a hit.
The strikeouts kept coming for Syndergaard, who finished with 10 — making him the first non-Kershaw starter to saddle this year’s Giants with double-digit K’s — and the quick outs kept coming for Bumgarner, who held serve in his half of each inning. Together, the two became the first starters to go seven-plus scoreless in a win-or-go-home game since John Smoltz and Jack Morris in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series — a matchup between one Hall of Famer and one guy who almost got to be one because of that game.
After seven, Syndergaard was burned out, handing the ball to Addison Reed, a 2015 Diamondbacks cast-off who transformed into this season’s most valuable reliever with no more than one save. Bumgarner kept going. He ended the eighth by catching an Asdrubal Cabrera liner that could have created a run, unleashing a full-body fist pump that looked from afar like it would make a good GIF or Vine. (It did.)
And shortly thereafter, the real rally began: a leadoff double by Brandon Crawford off Mets closer Jeurys Familia, a Joe Panik walk, and the sole source of scoring, a three-run bomb by Conor Gillaspie, who admitted to being “excited that Syndergaard wasn’t in there.” The longer the game stayed scoreless, the more it had looked like one swing would decide it. That seemed to favor the Mets, the first NL team in history to score most of its runs on home runs. But of course it was Conor Gillaspie, whom the Giants liked less than Gordon Beckham, and who wouldn’t have started had Eduardo Núñez’s hamstring healed in time for him to take his place. We’ve seen this story before.
Baseball’s October transition never gets old. When this week started, the regular season was running on fumes: In Chicago, the Twins took on the White Sox, while somewhere out West, the Padres and Diamondbacks were scrapping over their 60-somethingth win. Three days later, the season’s slate cleaned, a sold-out Citi Field saw two top-10 pitchers fight for their seasons without once making us wonder whether a manager had called for the right reliever. The Mets did well just to get to the game; a cobbled-together team down to the scraps of a once-proud rotation, they ran out a jerry-rigged lineup, with few faces returning from last year’s run. In the few chances they had — no Mets runner reached third — their historic unclutchness continued, but their real problem was running into the wrong starter. That’s what makes the playoffs so tough to predict: No matter how great your guy is, the other guy’s bound to be almost as good, maybe better. The Mets’ orange rally towels seemed to set the tone: Even when things went well for New York, the stands waved for San Francisco.
The Giants, Elias announced, passed Kansas City for the most-ever consecutive keep-alives in do-or-die postseason games, erasing the sting of a post-All-Star-break slump in which they suffered the ninth-worst all-time decline in winning percentage relative to the first half. Here we go again. And Bumgarner padded his postseason résumé, which was already ridiculous for a pitcher who just recently turned 27. After 15 playoff appearances (including a record six scoreless starts), he ranks fourth on the all-time leaderboard for postseason Championship Win Probability Added. One more good start, which could come against the Cubs in the NLDS next week, would get him to second, with only Mariano Rivera ahead of him.
“You throw everything at them,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said during the pregame press conference, disclosing his do-or-die strategy. For Bochy, Bumgarner was everything; in his case, one pitcher is plenty.
Thanks to Dan Hirsch of The Baseball Gauge and Rob Mains of Baseball Prospectus for research assistance.